Sunday, 18 March 2012

Neither a Frigate, nor an OPV be…

Humphrey was lucky enough to see the fascinating new Dutch ‘low end’ patrol ship HNLMS Holland the other day. This brand new vessel, commissioned barely 10 months ago represents an interesting resource shift on the part of the Netherlands Navy, and one that could spur on public debate in the UK about the roles played by higher end vessels.

The Holland is an interesting vessel – at roughly 3750 tonnes and 110m long, she is the size of a Frigate, and from outward appearances, and at certain angles looks similar to a scaled down Type 45 – particularly from the front with the main mast. However, this is where the similarity ends – she has a crew of only 50 (albeit with accommodation for a total of 90) – there is a large flight deck and hangar for a medium sized helicopter, and bays and stern ramp for the launch and recovery of ships boats. The only weaponry she is fitted for is a 76mm main gun, plus a 30mm and some smaller calibre weapons. They are also equipped with a particularly interesting internal communication system, reliant on PDAs for ship information.

HNLMS Holland - Taken from 

The class of four ships bear their genesis in a recent Dutch defence review, where the Navy drew down its frigate strength, and instead chose to focus resources on the littoral – relying on these four vessels for lower end duties, and also reinvesting in their MCMV capability. The result has been a class of ships which are frigate sized, but feel more optimised for the OPV role.

This is an absolutely fascinating vessel in many ways – she represents the shift in thinking in some navies, particularly those which have previously relied on access to high end escort ships, but which equally have many maritime constabulary tasks to undertake where an FFG is not necessarily the most appropriate platform to be employed in this role.

The result is a class of ship which is more than capable of holding its own against pirates, low level interdiction operations – for instance, in the West Indies where the Dutch retain colonial possessions, and still conduct counter narcotics work with resident naval vessels. At the same time they can carry sufficient space for a good electronics fit to enable the command systems to be fitted to allow for integration into a wider task force – such as OP ATALANTA, where the threat requires not just good hulls, but the ability to operate helicopters and boarding parties working with good wider situational awareness.

So far then, the Holland appears to be a class of ship capable of fulfilling the lower end of duties in that peculiarly grey area between the traditional role of an Offshore Patrol Vessel – which to those unfamiliar with warship types is essentially a simple vessel with basic weapons and designed to patrol the maritime waters of a nation, and that of a more complex frigate.

The challenge would seem to be though that to all intents and purposes, these ships are frigates. To use popular parlance, they would appear to provide an 80% solution to many maritime issues – capable of handling all the main duties shy of major maritime warfare. But, if the politicians, treasury and commentators regard them as frigates, then the challenge would seem to become that of trying to explain to a sceptical audience why they cannot be employed as frigates.

While a Frigate could easily carry out the many duties that Holland is designed to do, it also provides the ability to respond to wider threats and escalation – for instance, personally Humphrey would not wish to be on the Holland if she were deployed into a higher threat environment, where credible naval opponents lurked – the small crew would probably struggle to conduct damage control, and the lack of a wider weapons fit means the ship is reliant on a task group for protection. Her slow speed though (a reported top speed of 21kts) means she would probably struggle to carry out sustained task group operations.

So, Holland provides the 80% solution, but that comes at the price of meaning that she and her sisters would not be able to deliver the 100% solution expected of a more expensive frigate. This presents a challenge to the operational planners – the future Dutch navy is expected to consist of only six high end escorts, plus the four Holland’s as second line vessels. Six escorts realistically translates to a maximum of three available for deployment as a fully worked up group – in reality, it is unlikely that the Netherlands will ever be able to deploy more than one or two high end escorts to an international task force. Even moving the fleet to supporting one long distance commitment for a year will effectively reduce their available fleet by 50% as three hulls will be needed to cover this commitment.

A quick glance at their superb English language website ( clearly shows a nation which still harbours strong aspirations to play a leading role in NATO and European defence. This means that the Holland’s are going to be heavily called upon, whether they like it or not, to provide support.

Humphrey is a huge fan of the Netherlands Armed Forces – he’s worked with them across the world and found them to be supremely professional, extremely good at what they do, and well equipped with high end capability. He personally believes that the UKs current direction of defence policy travel closely mirrors that of the Netherlands – essentially both nations are maritime former colonial powers with global interests and professional armed forces trying to punch above their weight. That is why he is so interested in the emergence of the Holland class, as it is likely that similar arguments will be heard to justify acquiring a similar class of vessels for the Royal Navy at some point.

To be clear, Humphrey is not aware of any formal plan to introduce such a concept at present – the closest the RN comes is the so-called C3 concept (or whatever it is known as today!), mentioned in SDSR and which is a putative replacement programme for the MCMV, OPV and other minor war vessels. At present all the RNs frigates are due to be replaced by the Type 26, which will be a high end war fighting vessel, designed to do ASW and general purpose patrol. The first is due to hit the sea-lanes in about 8-10 years’ time, depending on construction speeds, and will replace the T23s over the next 20 years or so.

For more information on the C3 variant, it is worth looking at this link to the Think Defence website article - . For images and some information on the Type 26 in general, it is worth visiting the official RN website - 

The challenge the RN will face is trying to convince politicians and the Treasury as to why it should invest in the Type 26 and not an RN version of the Holland. There is an easy case to be made from an industrial perspective that buying OPVs rather than frigates does not make a huge amount of sense for the UKs shipbuilding industry – there is a need to protect the high end ship design and electronics capabilities that distinguish a major warship from its smaller cousins – however, Holland in many ways has provided a means of protecting the Netherlands national industrial base, by providing work in the more important areas where national capability is deemed an essential need.

For the RN, the danger may be that a keen individual works out that many of the Military Tasks that the RN currently does could be fulfilled by a smaller number of lower end vessels, leaving an escort fleet to focus on things like the Arabian Gulf or the Falklands. The build programme would preserve UK jobs and skills, but equally would enable the ability to put slightly cheaper (albeit Holland reportedly cost €150M Euros) vessels into service. After a while though, it would become ever harder to justify the Frigate fleet when the smaller vessels where being gainfully employed.

The problem is that a smaller ship will never be able to fight the sort of wars or conflicts that the UK anticipates and trains for as part of its wider defence policy. While these vessels may be superb for the OP ATALANTA role, or for tackling counter narcotics work, they still would not easily be able to successfully work with the USN, or conduct carrier or ARG escort work. It’s equally unlikely that they could be deployed globally without resorting to either a third watch manning system, or considering some kind of permanent station – which in turn raises a lot of questions about how to support such a move. For the UKs allies, much of the appeal of working with the RN is in getting access to a top tier navy which trains for high intensity conflict. The ships and equipment are designed for handling very complex maritime and littoral scenarios, and other navies want to work with us in order to learn how we handle such situations. There is huge interest in securing joint exercises and port visits, but it could be argued that a smaller vessel would be of less interest. Nations are less likely to come to us if we can only offer them the chance to work with a capability they wither have, or as other navies grow in capability, could represent a much lower capability. This in turn reduces our influence, and ability to work directly with navies that will matter to us in the future.

To this author, his strictly personal view is that while the Holland is a superb ship, and one which will hopefully meet Dutch needs for years to come, this is a path that the RN should be hugely reluctant to tread while it is optimised for a global role. Much as the Army has found that most people can train for peacekeeping, but it takes a great deal to step up to real war fighting, the danger is that an enlarged OPV in the RN would deliver an 80% solution, but cause major force generation, capability and war fighting challenges that could have immensely serious consequences.


  1. Thanks for the link Sir H

    Without being a shameless link spammer have a look at these for more recent posts on son of C3 and MCM

    Or for a bit of a left field look at the subject of 'low end' ships

    Consider yourself link spammed :)

  2. I like the concept more than the execution in this case.

    I think it should be even less warshippy.
    Personaly, I'd use Bays.
    We actualy did send an Albion on a big training mission to Bangladesh not too long ago, doing amphibious assault and stop/search/seize exercises with their marines.

    A Bay like ship could happily carry a couple of lynxs or merlins, with full hangars and workshops and a small flotilla of patrol boats, something like an enlarged CB90 that can be autonomous for three days.

    These can provide the standing patrols we have out pirate/drug hunting.

    Our high end assets can then be sent out on mentoring or flag flying as needed.

    In the event of a proper war, the auxillary craft are full fledged landing ships, or moderatly effective helicopter carriers.

  3. interesting article and I love the hollandes, but i'm not sure i see the conflict as surely this replicated in the C3 (MHPC?)..........?

  4. As part of a package of cuts announced in late 2011, the 3rd and 4th ships of this class are likely to be sold overseas upon completion. It would be nice to have something similar in the RN if they could be built quickly and cheaply, but it not worth investing much in ships of this type as they are really only suitable for coastguard and constabulary duties. I would describe them as a 50% rather than an 80% solution! I seem to remember a plan to build a class of 6 OPVs for the RN in about 1985. It was shelved on cost grounds, but the RN weren't keen as they thought that the goverment would use it as an excuse to reduce the Type 23 build.

  5. The beauty of something like a T26 is that it can do the low-end work, like APT(N) etc, but also it can swing into high-end work like escorting an ARG, or joining a USN CVBG. The Holland class can't really do that.
    In many ways the Holland class looks like it is too much ship to be an OPV and too little ship to be a frigate.

    1. Yes, high-end escorts like the T26 can perform low-end tasks, but the reverse just doesn't work. That is why ships like this are of questionable value to navies like the RN (high operational tempo and put themselves in harm's way). If all you want is something for routine security and counter-narcotics duties, then they are fine.

  6. For what it is and does, the Holland class could have been smaller and cheaper. Look at e.g. the Spanish BAM-class.
    It also seems to lack the open workdeck and space for containerised mission modules to make it a ship along the lines of the UK's MHPC concept (BMT's Venator design study is often mentioned in this context) or Australia's future multirole offshore secondary combattant.
    Not sure what to think about it. I would not duplicate it for "my" armchair navy.

  7. A real shame if the Netherlands will only get two of the four planned - they are potent ships. My concern is that they sit in the uncomfortable gap between proper frigates and OPVS, but we arent able to explain to people who dont get the distinction that just because it looks like a Frigate doesnt mean we can send it up threat.

    1. Correct, a compromised design which is more than what is needed for an OPV but would be of limited use in a medium to high-threat environment. It tries to do two jobs and ends up doing neither effectively.

  8. Another nice post

    The size of this class can be deceiving as the design grew to optimise sea keeping, while measures were taken for the cost not to grow (commercial steel, not the usual naval grade), high level of automation to minimise the crew (helo & contingent to go with it are not always needed), less installed power (chasing to be done by the boats for which launch positions are optimised for even rough seas, up to state 5, and the helo) ...and container handling is so clever that it is not easily spotted - two of them, when required, under the hangar

    Cheers, ACC

  9. Conceptually these ships are very much like American Coast Guard Cutters. They place emphasis on seakeeping and endurance, have good sensors, communications, helicopter and boat facilities and modest speed and armament.

    They can perform useful roles in war time in terms of regulating shipping, but are not first line units.

  10. You are right that it is a ship that can do approx. 80% of the tasks formely performed by m-class frigates but at a estimated 20% or less of the cost.The savings in crew cost alone (50 instead of 300) together with cheaper fuel use (diesels no gas turbines) make for much cheaper maintenance.These 4 came at total cost of 468 million Euro or 117 per vessel so 4 of these for the price of one fully equiped frigate or corvette.

  11. This ship won a innovation award today hence I looked it up.Here is a video in Dutch that shows the inside.

    1. Hi Roland, thanks very much for your comments. Your figures are a really helpful way to show the value of these vessels.


  12. In its current form the Holland OPV concept does not seem much threat to the RNs planned T26 Global conflict ship. However the three main points that Sir Humphrey makes, the lack of back up crew, light weaponry and speed could presumably be overcome for an extra 50 million pounds a ship, with the addition of a gas turbine boost engine, Phalanx and increase in the crew size to 130 with the ratings sharing cabins and current provision for a marine detachment, hospital or survivors area turned into conventional naval accommodation. The upgrade of the USN LCS to tow a sonar is another possibly inexpensive addition. Overall I think the cost would still be considerably less a new Meko 200 of the RNZN as they will be fitted in 2020.

  13. Well done on predicting the new Type 31 program.

    Hopefully GPFF will just about give is 98%.